MISSION — In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act, legislation that provides school children with healthier food options for breakfast and lunch. The act is also supposed to help combat childhood obesity.
Since 2004, Texas has been helping schools provide students with healthier foods. Many Rio Grande Valley school districts, such as Mission, have been preparing for the healthier menu changes that will be mandated by the 2012-2013 school year.
Laura Villarreal, coordinator for the child nutrition program at Region One, said having many Valley schools gradually implement the proposed mandates has been positive for the region.
“We want to make sure the kids and schools get a taste of it now, because soon there won’t be an option,” she said. “In order to continue receiving federal funding we have to follow it 100 percent.”
Currently, the federal guidelines only require that school districts “offer” foods that meet the nutritional guidelines. The students can refuse to take items they don’t like and won’t eat. The most significant change required under the new legislation is that districts will be required to actually “serve” those items, whether the child wants it or not. This has led to concerns that food will be wasted when children are served items they will not eat.
MCISD, like other districts, still uses the offer versus the serve option. In the future, they won’t have a choice. The mandate does not allow cafeterias to re-use items that are not eaten because federal funding for the meal was already provided. Even if it’s an apple students don’t eat or milk they don’t drink, it cannot be returned. Serving returned food items would also be a health regulation violation if items were tampered with or picked up bacteria.
Mission Consolidated Independent School District began following the Healthier U.S. School Challenge (HUSSC) menu for lunch in January. HUSSC is a nationwide program that recognizes schools for their excellence in nutrition and physical education.
“No one got upset we were serving more whole grains, no more French fries, and stopped offering two percent milk,” said Woodrum. “We also started serving more dark green vegetables, skim and low fat milk. At the secondary level more salads and fruits are offered and we did away with white bread two years ago.”
HUSSC and Obama’s mandate are similar in nutritional guidelines. As an example, for breakfast, children are receiving half a cup of fruit a day. The proposed plan would increase it to a cup a day. Similarly, the mandate would require more whole grains and greater meat portions to be served. Today, schools have a choice of offering one or the other.
On the lunch menu, the act requires more vegetables and fruits to be serve. It also requires specific types of green and orange vegetables. Other requirements also include serving items with less fat, saturated fat and sodium.
Villarreal said many of the guidelines the federal government wants implemented are going to be tough, especially since there are different meal patterns for different grade levels.
“They are going to require us to limit how much starchy vegetables we can offer. So the popular vegetables like corn, fries, and potatoes are going to be limited,” said Villarreal. “Those are the vegetables the kids do take and they are going to want us to offer only a cup, or none at all.”
Woodrum said 90 percent of students in Mission participate in free or reduced meals; many want to eat and aren’t interested in wasting food.
“Parents say we throw away a lot of food, but truth is we don’t. Many of our children come from low-income areas. So, they are actually hungry,” she said. “We actually have a problem of our children wanting more food. If they have already met calorie requirements, we give more fruits and vegetables, not the main entrée.”
To reduce waste, but not eliminate it, Woodrum said proper planning would help. Cafeterias would learn how much food to make for students and what types of healthy foods kids enjoy more.
“Some kids don’t like green beans and will throw them away. However, with our program we give them another option they hopefully won’t throw away,” she said. “We also find ways to make food more appealing, by how they are displayed or the color. For instance slicing a grapefruit into fours with a cherry in the middle.”
Since they have not received a specific pattern from the USDA as to how the proposed mandate will flow, it’s hard to gauge how much waste could be produced. Villarreal said.
“We won’t know exactly until the program is in full effect,” she said.
MCISD serves about 13,500 students for breakfast and 14,500 students for lunch during the school year. The new mandate demands that each student receive more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in each meal, costing more. Villarreal said food plate costs right now vary in each district. They can range from less then $2 to $2.30. This is not including labor or any other amenities.
“There are many factors that play into cost. It depends on what districts purchase and if they are buying from a vendor or if it’s a government commodity, such as bread, cheese, and milk; these come at no cost to districts,” said Villarreal. “It’s based on what the school ultimately selects.”
At MCISD, Woodrum said the government has paid the cost of the meal for the district, but with a mandate that requires more fruit and vegetables, that may change.
Since these new breakfast/lunch programs are still going through revisions, legislation is offering six cents extra for each reimbursed meal. However, this may not cover the expense of all the new items schools will now be required to offer.
“Childhood nutrition is basically a business. We have to make sure we’re meeting our customers’ needs and (be) able to run the business financially,” said Villarreal. “Other than that, I think this is going to be a great way to address the obesity epidemic and impact the lives of kids.”
Villarreal said though many districts like MCISD may be on track with their nutrition, many of them need to work on the physical fitness programs. Childhood obesity in this country affects one-in-three children, according to letsmove.gov. Statistics are even higher among African-American and Hispanic communities.
“It’s hard to control what the children do outside of school, like if they are eating a bag of Hot Cheetos and a large Coke before their dinner,” said Villarreal. “Or if parents bring them outside food for lunch. Learning nutrition starts at the home, but it also starts with us, for many. Hopefully students can carry that nutritional education home.”
MCISD officials said there are no vending machines below the high school level. The machines at high schools have to meet nutritional guidelines, as well as outside food brought and sold at school. Woodrum said the district tries to monitor all food at their schools.
“The district is looking forward to the new mandate,” she said. “The health of our children is first and the goal is to keep them healthy and not hungry at the same time.”
Through the summer, MCISD is offering free healthy breakfasts and lunches at certain locations.
“We are (at) a high-poverty level and we continue to feed our children in the summer. It doesn’t matter what district, school, or country. If a child is hungry and they come to one of our open sites, we feed them,” said Woodrum. “The main priority is the health of our children and keeping them healthy, even when they’re not in school.”
For more information about MCISD’s healthy breakfast/lunch menus visit www.mcisd.com. To find summer meal program locations near you call the child nutrition program office at 956-323-3800.
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